In 1971, legendary sitarist, Ravi Shankar, asked his long-time friend, George Harrison, to help with a humanitarian crisis happening in his native Bangladesh; the result was the Concert for Bangladesh. The former Beatle organized the benefit concert quickly.
George wanted to help Shankar and the Bangladeshi people. Every part of the Concert for Bangladesh had to be perfect, even its date.
George Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh to help his friend Ravi Shankar
In late 1971, Shankar told George about the humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan (formerly East Bengal).
A devastating cyclone had killed 500,000 people. After months of inaction from the West Pakistani government, people wanted a change, and Eastern nationals declared themselves the independent country of Bangladesh. It started a bloody war. The Western Pakistani troops committed genocidal acts on the Bangladeshi people.
In 1997, Shankar told John Fugelsang at VH1 (per George Harrison on George Harrison: Interviews and Encounters) that he initially started planning a benefit concert himself and expected to raise only about 20 to 30 thousand dollars.
“George happened to be in Los Angeles at that time, and he saw how unhappy I was, and I told him,” Shankar told Fugelsang. “He said, ‘That’s nothing, let’s do something big,’ and immediately he, like magic, you know, he phoned up, fixed Madison Square Garden and all his friends, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and it was magic really.”
George organized the Concert for Bangladesh in six weeks. He set up a star-studded lineup for two shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The bill included Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Badfinger, and Bob Dylan.
George said (per Rolling Stone), “The Concert for Bangladesh was just a moral stance. These kinds of things have grown over the years, but what we did showed the musicians and people are more humane than politicians.
“Today, people accept the commitment rock ‘n’ roll musicians have when they perform for a charity. When I did it, they said things like, ‘He’s only doing this to be nice.'”
George consulted an Indian astrologer to find a suitable date for the Concert for Bangladesh
The former Beatle told Fugelsang that it was a matter of simply asking his friends to come along to the benefit concert. George added that he consulted an Indian astrologer to find the correct date for the Concert for Bangladesh.
“I just got on the telephone in Los Angeles,” George explained. “There was a fellow … there was an Indian astrologer who I’d met in LA, and so I said to him, ‘Hey, is there any good particular day to put this concert on,’ and he said, ‘August the first or August the second.’
“And I thought New York was the best place to put it, just because of all the media and it’s in between Europe and LA, and I checked Madison Square Garden, and I found it was vacant on that day.”
The former Beatle gave the money to UNICEF
For the two shows at Madison Square Garden, George raised $243,000, according to the Guardian. Millions more would come from the sales of the live album. However, George had to decide where to send the money to get to Bangladesh immediately. He knew who he didn’t want to hand it to; the Red Cross.
During an interview on The Dick Cavett Show (per George Harrison on George Harrison), George explained that he didn’t want the organization to get the money because they were racist.
George said, “We checked different things out, we were going to give it to the Red Cross, this was the first idea—that we give the money to the American Red Cross who in turn could give it to the Indian Red Cross—but then we heard so many different stories about the Red Cross, and how there’s, you know, hurricanes hit someplace in America, and they just take care of the whites, and all the blacks are there and they’re not taking care of them. You hear so many different stories about things.”
George and Shankar agreed to give the money they earned at the Concert for Bangladesh to UNICEF. However, choosing UNICEF was their only smart move. In 1985, the LA Times reported that nearly $12 million had been sent to Bangladesh “as a result of the concert proceeds and subsequent investments.”
However, according to the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, 85% of that money didn’t get to Bangladesh for more than a decade. The delay occurred because the proceeds were handled by a profit-making company, The Beatles’ Apple Corp., instead of a legally qualified charity.
When Bob Geldof started organizing Live Aid in 1985, George advised him to get a good accountant. Regardless, George set a precedent with the Concert for Bangladesh. It paved the way for benefit concerts to come.